Working with cancer: Tips for employers
It can be difficult to know how to react to the news that an employee has cancer and there may be uncertainty on how best to support them.
It is normal to have many questions, including how to engage with your employee and the wider team about the illness, what adjustments might need to be made in the workplace/working schedule and what is expected of you as an employer.
Where available, it is important to link in with any HR resources or your organisation’s leadership to help best navigate this difficult time.
It is okay to ask the employee what they want and need. Be clear and upfront about what can be accommodated so all parties are fully aware.
For further information and resources, please visit www.cancer.ie/employer-guidelines
How to support an employee with cancer
If an employee comes to you to talk about a cancer diagnosis, it is important to consider the following:
- Avoid distraction by organising a confidential area to speak.
- Reassure the employee that conversations will be kept confidential.
- Allow the employee to speak at their own pace.
- Listen to what they have to say and don’t feel a need to respond.
- Don’t agree or disagree – keep your response neutral, such as simply nodding your head. You will learn more from listening to them.
- It is okay to ask questions but take your cue from them; if they feel uncomfortable answering the question, don’t push them for an answer. Some people are quite private while others will be open.
- Pay close attention and try not to interrupt, then summarise what you’ve discussed.
- Let an employee know that you care, that your door will be open to them should they wish to discuss anything. Encourage them to continue communicating with you.
It is important to show empathy and understanding towards the employee during this difficult time.
There are many supports to make your employee aware of, including cancer support centres, support groups for different types of cancers, counsellors, booklets and online forums.
Provide the employee with the details of any Employee Assistance Programme supports (if relevant), including counselling supports, as well as legal and financial information.
- Never discuss one employee’s medical condition with another employee without their permission.
- If the employee wants others to be made aware of their situation, discuss with them how this should be handled.
- If the employee does not want to share information regarding their medical condition immediately, you should decide together what you are going to tell other staff about their absence, if relevant.
- Inform yourself about the cancer type of the employee as well as the relevant treatment and its common side-effects from reputable sources such as the Irish Cancer Society. This should not be used to advise the employee but rather to provide you with context for the support you may need to put in place. Call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700 for any further information required.
- Never assume that because you have personal knowledge of someone who has had cancer and the treatment protocol they went through, that it is the same for everyone.
- If the employee is absent from the workplace, include them by keeping them up to date with what’s happening in work if they are happy to receive such updates – their job is important to them. The employee might prefer that a nominated next of kin receive the updates; provide them with that option.
- The employee should decide on the frequency of these updates and the method by which they occur (by email, post, text, etc.). Please note that communication preferences may change over time and should be kept under review.
- Provide your employees with details of the Irish Cancer Society Support Line (1800 200 700). A cancer nurse will provide support and more information if they are interested in participating in counselling.
Other practical supports for consideration
- Assist the employee with any necessary forms or paperwork.
- Organise a parking space at work if possible/relevant.
- A “buddy system” is recommended for colleagues returning to work after a period of leave (as referred to in the Cancer and Chronic or Serious Illness Policy). If the employee chooses to participate, a colleague will be assigned as a buddy whose role is to provide peer support for the employee’s return to work. This includes introductions to any new colleagues, any organisation updates, as well as a listening ear.
Guidelines and policies
As an employer, it is your duty to inform your employee about company policy and schemes when they advise you of their cancer diagnosis.
- Inform yourself about your employee's rights and entitlements in collaboration with your HR resources.
- Employees on extended leave due to cancer should be fully informed of their contractual sick pay and leave entitlements, as well as other statutory entitlements for which they may qualify.
- Pay particular attention to any policies relating to sickness absence, sick pay and occupational health provision, as well as long-term absence. The same applies to any company guidelines or policies that exist in relation to supporting an employee who has cancer or who is caring for someone with cancer.
- Being aware of legal requirements and any guidelines and policies in your organisation means you can give clear guidance to your employees about their rights and entitlements and meet your obligations as an employer.
Cancer Support Plan
Remember that every employee’s needs and situation will be different. Some employees may want to continue working, not just for financial reasons, but for continuity and to give themselves a focus that is not their illness.
When the employee is ready, a meeting with the employee, yourself as manager and a member of HR should be held to develop an individual plan. This plan can be developed if the employee is taking time away from work for illness or treatment or if they decide to remain in work during treatment.
A Cancer Support Plan is a short, simple document, developed by the employer and the employee. It sets out the practical work-related details about an employee’s absence from work, return to work, or arrangements to stay working during cancer treatment.
Meeting templates for the Cancer Support Plan can be found here.
Coping with emotions at work
A diagnosis of cancer can have an emotional impact, not just on the employee diagnosed with cancer, but also on their colleagues and on you as an employer. Colleagues may be upset or unsure about how to react.
- Please note that emotional reactions will vary from person to person. More information on the emotional effects of cancer can be found here.
- Encourage communication between you and the employee and you and the team on how everyone is doing – bring the situation back to them and its effect on their working life.
- If you are not hiring someone to do the employee's job, it is important to be mindful of the workload and additional pressure on colleagues.
- If you feel more emotional support is needed, discuss this with HR.
- Provide the employee with the details of any Employee Assistance Programme supports (if relevant), including counselling supports, as well as legal and financial information.
- You can call our Support Line on 1800 200 700 for information about local cancer support groups in your area.
Returning to work can be challenging for a variety of reasons. An Irish Cancer Society-funded study, conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) - Returning to Work after a Cancer Diagnosis - explores the issue of going back to work and makes recommendations to employers, government and trade unions.
Returning to Work after a Cancer Diagnosis
Cancer can also affect an employee caring for a loved one with a cancer diagnosis.
- The employee may need to reduce their hours or take a period of absence from work.
- A carer’s need for extra time off work may increase stress levels – for the carer who has to try to manage their workload while working shorter hours, or for other staff members who are supporting their absent colleague. Ensure that the employee is aware of their rights and responsibilities in combining caring and work.
- Carers may need extra practical and emotional support from their colleagues and you as an employer at this time. Provide caregivers with a support network, including details of support services that might help them deal with the situation.
- Keep all channels of communications open. This is especially important in situations where longer-term solutions may be required.
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